This weekend the conservative city-state of Singapore will play host to what is being promoted as Asia's biggest gay and lesbian festival, according to a report by Agence France-Presse. A record 8,000 revelers are estimated to attend the fourth annual party in what is expected to be a lively boost to Singapore's emerging reputation as one of Asia's premier gay tourism and entertainment hubs. Stuart Koe, the chief executive of regional gay Web site Fridae.com, which is organizing the event, said the three-day festival beginning Saturday, August 7, was projected to generate $5.8 million in tourism revenue. "We have large numbers of people coming from Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States," Koe told AFP, adding that the numbers of partygoers had grown from 1,500 in the event's first year in 2001. "There's nothing else like this in Asia. It's really the only event on this scale."
The festival is expected to increase tensions between Singapore and Thailand over which country can lay claim to the title of Asia's gay tourism capital after a Bangkok-based lobby group was formed last week to win back the pink dollar from the city-state, AFP reports. However, Koe stressed the event, which coincides with Singapore's National Day celebrations on Monday and boasts some of the region's best DJs at its beach and nightclub parties, is not targeted solely at the gay and lesbian community. "This is an event that welcomes gays, lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals. It's an event that does not discriminate against anybody," he said. "We are trying to create an event that puts prejudices aside and really empowers people to be who they are."
But many gay activists question whether the Singapore government is cynically chasing gay tourism dollars rather than genuinely trying to encourage a more tolerant and open society. Indeed, gay sex is still outlawed in the nation, and authorities are maintaining a ban on gay groups registering as societies. "All [the government leaders] are interested in is the entertainment dollar, not rights and freedoms and liberalization of the mind," local gay rights activist Alex Au told AFP. Au's People Like Us group, which represents Singapore's gay and lesbian community, has been trying to become registered as a society since 1996, with its most recent effort failing in March this year.
The government restrictions reflect a self-confessed double standard on the part of the nation's leaders toward gays. Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong said in July last year that gays would be allowed to work in civil service, while a first-ever help center catering specifically to gays opened a few months later offering phone counseling services and medical and legal advice. The city-state has also seen many gay-friendly clubs, karaoke pubs, saunas, restaurants, and fashion outlets open in recent years. Yet Goh insisted last year that gay sex acts would not be decriminalized because of opposition from Singapore's conservative majority Chinese population as well as the Muslim community. "The heartlanders are still conservative. You can call it double standard, but sometimes it is double standard. They are conservative," he said. "And for the Muslims, it's religion, it's not the law. Islam openly says the religion is against gay practice."